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In October 2019, No Red Tape Columbia sat down with Marjory Fisher, the Title IX coordinator, and Kelly Joyce, the interim associate vice president of Student Conduct and Community Standards, to clarify Columbia’s definition of affirmative consent. The gender-based misconduct policy currently states that consent may be given through “words or actions.” While Columbia continues to communicate to the student body that an enthusiastic verbal “yes” constitutes consent, there is little indication as to what “actions” Columbia considers potential indicators of affirmative consent. Hugs? Kisses? Smiles?

One such action, according to the Title IX coordinator: sexual arousal.

Considering sexual arousal when discussing whether or not an individual gave consent particularly disadvantages survivors of sexual violence who were assigned male at birth, for whom instances of physical arousal in response to non-consensual sexual stimuli is not uncommon and a prevalent excuse offenders use to victim-blame.

But in our meeting with Fisher, she acknowledged that under Columbia’s gender-based misconduct policy, sexual arousal would be considered among other factors when determining if consent was given. Despite extensive research on arousal non-concordance—which highlights the fact that sexual arousal does not necessarily correlate to sexual consent—this fallacy continues to impact Columbia’s Title IX proceedings.

During our meeting, we asked Fisher to explain why administrators would not update Columbia’s policy so that arousal is not a factor in consent. Fisher claimed that Columbia’s policy on affirmative consent must adhere to the wording used in New York state Enough is Enough legislation, so Columbia’s current definition of consent is, at least for now, set in stone.

However, what Fisher failed to mention is that Columbia’s definition of consent actually does not align verbatim with the definition from Enough is Enough. For example, while Enough is Enough outlines that words or actions must “create clear permission” to constitute affirmative consent, Columbia’s current policy states that words or actions need only “clearly communicate willingness to engage in the sexual activity.”

Enough is Enough also does not prohibit Columbia from elaborating on its definition of affirmative consent with clarifications or examples of what factors are to be considered or excluded. For example, although not required by New York law, Columbia’s policy currently specifies that accepting a gift or meal from someone does not constitute affirmative consent. Given this flexibility, Columbia should clarify that arousal will not be considered an indicator of consent.

Columbia’s policy of considering arousal a potential factor in giving consent is scientifically inaccurate. This is a fact backed up by extensive scientific research over the past few decades. As a premier research institution, the administration’s disregard for scientific evidence is hypocritical and should concern the entire Columbia community. Title IX processes have the power to change students’ lives; why can Columbia administrators continue to ignore scientifically accurate information to make official determinations of consent?

In October, No Red Tape brought this to the attention of Executive Vice President for University Life Suzanne Goldberg, who is in charge of Columbia’s gender-based misconduct policy and a legal expert on issues of gender and sexuality, through email. Our request that she update this aspect of the policy to be scientifically accurate remains ignored. Goldberg has also not responded to our email inquiry requesting an explanation or an in-person meeting this semester.

While Fisher continues to use New York state law as a scapegoat, Columbia students who experience an orgasm or erection during their sexual assaults run the risk of those involuntary bodily responses playing a role in their assailants being found “not responsible.”

We demand Columbia explicitly exclude arousal from the set of factors investigators can consider when evaluating consent. This should be clearly stated in Columbia’s gender-based misconduct policy for students, either after Columbia’s definition of affirmative consent or in Columbia’s list of hypothetical cases with explanations. We wouldn’t punish students for sneezing, so why do we punish them for something just as involuntary?

No Red Tape is a student group that fights to end sexual and dating violence on college campuses and empower survivors. No Red Tape meets Thursdays at 7 p.m. in Diana LL2 and can be reached at noredtapecu@gmail.com.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

sexual assault sexual misconduct title IX gender-based misconduct
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